Dec. 10, 2009

By Rubin E. Grant
Special to

The memory of his first NCAA Division II championship football game is still fresh in the mind of Northwest Missouri State sophomore receiver Jake Soy.

The Bearcats lost 21-14 to Minnesota-Duluth in the 2008 final, saddling Northwest Missouri State with the runner-up trophy for the fourth consecutive year.

"It was like having your heart ripped out and getting stomped on," Soy said earlier this week. "It was a terrible feeling."

Soy and the second-ranked Bearcats (13-1) will try to erase the bitterness of that 2008 loss and end four years of frustration when they play the third-ranked Grand Valley State Lakers (13-1) in the 2009 championship game at 1 p.m. ET Saturday at Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

Although Soy vividly remembers what happened last year, he said that game will have little bearing come Saturday.

"We can't make a big deal out of the past four years," he said. "We have to put it behind us. We can't dwell on it. This is a different team than the last four years. We have our own identity. This is our team, our year and we have to do our own thing."

The Bearcats are making their fifth consecutive appearance in the national championship game, a Division II record.

"When you stop and think about it - I'm not a person to blow my own horn - but it's a tremendous accomplishment," said Northwest Missouri head coach Mel Tjeerdsma, who is in his 16th season with the program and led the Bearcats to consecutive titles in 1998 and '99. "We have had to go through every region and we had some tough games every year. In the regional quarterfinal each year we've had to beat a 12-0 team on the road. That says a lot about the kids we have and their ability to handle any situation."

The 6-foot-3 Soy has been instrumental in Northwest Missouri's return to the title game. He had three touchdown receptions in the Bearcats' 56-31 semifinal victory against California (Pa.) last week. For the season, he has 83 receptions for 1,441 yards and 26 touchdowns. His yardage leads Division II and his total of touchdowns is the third highest single-season total in D-II history.

"He's probably the best receiver I've seen in Division II," Tjeerdsma said. "I don't get caught up in numbers, but what he's doing is mind-boggling."

Grand Valley, winner of four national titles since 2002, is playing in a sixth national championship game and meeting Northwest Missouri for the third time in the title game. The Lakers beat the Bearcats in the final in 2005 and '06, but in 2007 Northwest Missouri knocked Grand Valley out of the playoffs in the semifinals.

Some are billing the matchup as the "the game of the decade" because it features the two winningest programs in Division II in the past 10 years. Grand Valley is 122-12 during that span and Northwest Missouri is 112-21.

"We're excited about the opportunity," Grand Valley head coach Chuck Martin said. "It's been a struggle for us this season. We're young at a lot of positions and we've been crushed by injuries. In the middle of the season, we had nine guys out on defense. If you look back at our two-deep in August and what it is now, it's changed a lot."

The Lakers will still be without the four players who were suspended for a violation of team rules before their semifinal against Carson-Newman, including junior tailback Jimmy Berezik, Grand Valley's career leading rusher. The others are sophomore starting defensive tackle Andre Thomas, second-string sophomore defensive tackle Ryan Wheat and second-string sophomore linebacker Blair Hollis. Berezik had rushed for 1,206 yards this season and has 3,630 career yards.

"We're a shadow of what we could have been this season," Martin said, "but we're hanging in there. We're playing pretty good football with all hands on deck."

Without Berezik, the Lakers turned to senior P.T. Gates against Carson-Newman and he had a career day, rushing for 183 yards on 28 carries and two touchdowns to lead Grand Valley to a 41-27 victory.

"P.T. has been spectacular all year long," Martin said. "He's been huge for us."

Both teams feature high-powered offenses. Northwest Missouri is averaging 43.0 points and 482.0 yards total offense per game, while Grand Valley State averages 36.8 points and 455.1 yards total offense.

Neither coach is predicting a shootout. In their 2005 and 2006 championship games, Grand Valley won 21-17 and 17-14.

"When we played Washburn, we were the top two scoring teams in the country and the game ended in a 16-16 tie going into overtime," Tjeerdsma said, referring to a 22-19 Bearcats' victory during the regular season. "You think it's going to be one way and it turns out the opposite."

Martin concurred. "You never know how these games are going to go," he said. "Both offenses are explosive, but neither team is giving up too many points.

"We'll have to play a very clean game and take care of the football. We can't give them a short field and we can't give up big plays. Our defense is going to have to make them drive the football and earn whatever they get."